Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jury Voir Dire Uncovers Witness to Crime

The Cincinnati Enquirer has the story of the juror, who becomes the witness.  Check out reporter Kimball Perry's story and tell me that this isn't ready-made for a Law & Order episode:

"In a stunning twist to a Tuesday Hamilton County jury trial, Najah Johnson-Riddle went from juror to witness.  'I was astonished,' said defense attorney Roger Bouchard.  'I was shocked and surprised,' Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Nelson said.

Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman said from the bench he'd seen nothing like it in his 33 years as a prosecutor and judge.  Johnson-Riddle was one of 12 jurors seated to hear the domestic violence and felonious assault charges against James Capell, 42, of Colerain Township.

Capell is accused of - but has pleaded not guilty to - brutally beating a woman in her College Hill home May 30. He is accused of breaking the glass out of the woman's door in the 1200 block of West Galbraith Road, entering her home and using his keys to beat her in the face, then choking her and biting her ear. 'He punched her in the face. He beat the crap out of her. He brutalized her,'  Nelson said of the victim who needed several staples to close a head wound

A neighbor across the street anonymously called 911 to report the brutal beating.

When police arrived, though, Capell is accused of keeping the woman in the bedroom, covering her mouth and threatening to kill her if she cried out. The police, seeing nothing amiss and hearing nothing, left.  When they did, the beating resumed. The victim was able to call a relative who called 911, resulting in the arrest of Capell - who already had two felony domestic violence convictions involving another woman and was sent to prison for it for two years in 2007.

Jurors were seated late Monday. The trial began Tuesday. Nelson gave his opening statements, telling jurors what he expected the evidence to prove. Bouchard was doing the same for the defense when juror number eight, Johnson-Riddle, stunned the courtroom and stopped the trial by blurting out she couldn't sit on the jury.

'She said, 'I was the (anonymous) person who made the 911 call,'  the assistant prosecutor said.

'She said, 'It woke me up out of my bed and I saw him beating on her. I thought she must be dead.''

Her outburst tainted the entire jury because it corroborated statements made by the prosecution and claims made by the victim, Ruehlman declared a mistrial.  The new trial begins Wednesday - and Johnson-Riddle will be called by prosecutors to testify against the man she originally was to sit in judgment against.

'My thought was 'No way.' There are millions of people here. She must be asking about another incident,'  Nelson said.

During jury selection, potential jurors aren't told the facts of the case. Instead, they are questioned so attorneys can determine the person's background, job and other information that will help them decide if that person should be seated.

The charges against Capell carry a maximum prison sentence of 13 years.
Judge Ruehlman may have not encountered this situation in 33 years, but I have.

Many years ago, I was trying a simple car accident case, when the jury venire (prospective, jurors) was ushered into the box.  I was given a list of the jurors, and their occupations.  One of the prospective jurors was the investigating officer in the underlying car accident--he signed the police report.  While the juror/cop was not called as a witness in my case, "liability" was not the issue, we were trying the case for a jury determination of damages, only--he was obviously not eligible to sit as an impartial juror. 

Unfortunately, the court began voir dire (questioning of the prospective jurors) without giving me an opportunity to point out the problem.  The Judge described the case is some detail with no obvious sign of reaction from the prospective juror.  The judge asked if any of the jurors knew any of the parties, no reaction.  The Judge asked if any of the jurors knew any of the attorneys, the cop/witness raised his hand.  "I think I know, Mr Bad Lawyer, over there (pointing at me,)" he said.  The Judge asked how he knew me. "I think he represented me in a workers' compensation claim," he replied.  He was excused from the jury.  It never dawned on this prospective juror that he was the investigative police officer in the motor vehicle accident.

I represented thousands of injured workers (and employers) in workers' compensation matters (I covered hearings for referring attorneys in addition to my own small practice) over two decades.  It never occurred to me that in addition to being the investigative cop, a witness, and a prospective juror--this officer also had been a client, if only, momentarily at a workers' compensation hearing.  This was just a remarkable coincidence.


  1. I practice in a very small town, which provides an endless supply of these kinds of stories. I had only been practicing about a year when I had a criminal trial where the arresting officer was in the jury pool. There was another case where the 13 jurors we actually selected included my landlord, and my boss's brother. You're also guaranteed to get a juror who either went to high school with the arresting officer, or taught him in high school.

  2. Jennifer--

    Right your are! Thank you for bringing your perspective. The thing about hte Cincy jury and the anecdote that I supplied is that we are talking about mega-regions drawing on millions of potential jurors--making the coincidence bizarre. But your experience is equally valid and fascinating. If you think about he jury system, jurors in "olden times" weren't strangers. We need look no furhter than "To Kill a Mocking Bird" for a more contemporary example of what you're referring to. I'm sure in all sorts of cases in rural areas of the US your experience is the norm.

    I defended an employer in a workers' comp case in a rural court and a juror was an RN at the local hospital where the plaintiff's expert witness worked. She did not work directly for him and based on voir dire, I left her on the jury. She voted against the Plaintiff and indirectly against the expert opinion of the physician from the local hospital.

  3. Hello! I was the prosecutor who tried Mr. Capell. Twice. As I've been getting crapped on by my compatriots for this for the better part of six months, I thought I'd offer a little clarification for posterity: while most of Kimball's story is semi-accurate, the part where he says "During jury selection, potential jurors aren't told the facts of the case" is flat out wrong: I went over the allegation in some detail, including date, time, location, and the fact that some anonymous person called 911. If this juror had been paying attention at all it would have rang a bell. The problem was that she was sitting in the jury pool and not in the box, and was most likely reading the book she had brought with her. After we exercised our peremptory challenges, she ended up in the box. In addition to asking her some rather typical questions, I asked her the following: "did anything I asked anyone else on the panel make you think of anything that you'd like to share with me?" If she had been listening, she would have said "yeah, I saw the whole thing! That bastard is guilty as hell!" But... no. All's well that ends well though- in the second trial, she was a great witness, and at the end of the day the guy got convicted and won't be out until my kids are in college- and I won the Hellen Keller Award at our end of the year party.